Codependency is complex, and therefore it’s sometimes difficult to define. Basically, we can say that one person enables another person’s dysfunctions. Typically, we think of codependent relationships that involve addiction. Your husband is an alcoholic so you call his office and tell them he’s sick when he’s really on a bender. But codependency can cover a much broader range of unhealthy behaviors. For example, your daughter is chronically late and you write notes to her teacher to get her excused.
You think you are helping, and in the short term you are. You’re motivated out of love. You feel emotionally entangled and you completely understand your daughter/husband/person-who-needs-rescuing. You want to eliminate their suffering. How do you say no to a loved one who needs you? And let’s face it. You get something out of this too. You deepen the intimacy of your relationship by sharing experiences and averting disasters. You feel like the superior, healthy one in the relationship. You are the white knight who rescues your loved one.
But in fact, to feel good, you need the other person to perform under his capabilities. You need that person to be incompetent. You need that person to need you. So to continue this lopsided relationship you fall into a pattern of repeatedly rescuing and never expecting better behavior from your loved one. In that way, over time, your loved one becomes less and less able to recover by himself and more and more dependent on you. So in actuality, when you “help” you are hurting him, weakening him, proving to him that he is unable to function.
How do you become codependent?
Becoming codependent can be an insidious process. After all, you are trying to help another person. So it begins with a selfless act. But when you repeatedly save another person, you become dependent on them to define your life. Your own identity and self-worth become wrapped up in propping up someone else. You depend on them to feel fulfilled.
Some suggest that people who grew up with emotionally abusive or neglectful parents are more prone to enter into codependent relationships. These children learn to suppress their own needs when the parents’ needs supersede theirs. In this way, they can essentially buy their parents’ love. They learn a pattern of pleasing difficult people, and when it comes time to marry, they chose someone from whom they can get love in the same way.
So ask yourself: Are you giving up your own needs and sacrificing yourself to support a dysfunctional person? If so, you are probably in a codependent relationship. Next week we’ll talk about what you can do to change to a healthier situation.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.